How Does Intergenerational Trauma Work?

Definitions, studies, and examples

Intergenerational trauma is the theory that trauma can be inherited because there are genetic changes in a person’s DNA. The changes from trauma do not damage the gene (genetic change). Instead, they alter how the gene functions (epigenetic change).

Epigenetic changes do not alter the DNA sequence; they change how your body reads the DNA sequence.

Epigenetics is the study of the effects that environment and behavior have on genes. For example, in 2008, researchers found an association between prenatal exposure to famine and an offspring’s later adult disease risk. The offspring in the study had less DNA methylation (a biological process that controls how genes are expressed) of the imprinted IGF2 gene. Additional studies have supported the idea that an ancestor’s exposure to trauma may impact future generations. 

Even so, the science of epigenetics is still in its infancy. Further research is needed to definitively say whether a parent's—or even grandparent’s—trauma can be passed down generationally. Here is an overview of what is known about the theory of intergenerational trauma.

Person with light skin and long, brown hair talks to a therapist

Fiordaliso/Getty Images

What Is Intergenerational Trauma?

Trauma is a person's emotional response to a tragic event (for example, accidents, sexual violence, and natural disasters). Long-term trauma is marked by having flashbacks, unpredictable emotions, and physical symptoms like nausea and headaches.

Intergenerational trauma is the theory that a trauma that is experienced by one person in a family—for example, a parent or grandparent—can be passed down to future generations because of the way that trauma epigenetically alters genes.

While epigenetic studies have found correlations between prenatal and preconception trauma and gene methylation in offspring, not all scientists agree with the findings. 

Criticism

A 2015 study on Holocaust exposure and intergenerational effects found an association between preconception trauma and epigenetic alterations in the parent and the offspring. However, the study was criticized because of its small sample size and because the researchers studied blood and a small subset of genes.

A more general criticism is that social epigeneticists make far-reaching claims by focusing on epigenetics in biology and ignoring established facts about genetics and cell biology.

Critics also assert that unresolved questions—such as the role of DNA methylation in regulating gene activity—are treated by epigenetic researchers as a given.

Epigenetics and Trauma Research

The field of epigenetics is focused on how behaviors and the environment influence the way your genes work. Genetic changes affect which proteins are made, and epigenetic changes affect a gene’s expression to turn genes on or off. 

Epigenetic changes can affect health in several ways.

  • Infection: Germs can change epigenetics to weaken your immune system.
  • Cancer: Certain mutations increase your risk of cancer.
  • Prenatal nutrition: Prenatal environment and behavior can impact a fetus’s epigenetics.

There have been multiple observational studies on how experiencing a famine prenatally affects offspring. The researchers found a consistent correlation between prenatal exposure to famine and adult body mass index (BMI), diabetes, and schizophrenia.

Another study in 2018 found that the male offspring of Civil War soldiers who spent time as prisoners of war (POWs) were more likely to die early after age 45 than people whose fathers had not been POWs. The researchers concluded that paternal stress could affect future generations and that the impact may occur through epigenetic channels.

Parenting vs. Epigenetics

The Civil War study acknowledged that in addition to epigenetics, the transmission of trauma might be influenced by cultural, psychological, or socioeconomic factors.

In other words, kids whose parents experienced trauma are more likely to grow up with a parent who is unstable, emotionally distant, or anxious, and these parenting behaviors may also contribute to trauma that is passed down to another generation.  

Long-Term Effects

It's known that trauma can influence a person’s psychological, emotional, and physical health for a lifetime. If trauma can be passed down epigenetically, it would make sense that it could have the potential to affect future generations’ lives as well.

The potential long-term effects of trauma include:

Acute stress disorder is a normal stress response that usually resolves within four weeks. In that time, a person may have symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed, needing to talk about the trauma they experienced, hypervigilance, and avoidance.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that develops after trauma. In this case, a person's symptoms last longer than four weeks and span several categories.

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have nine out of 14 symptoms within the following categories:

  • Intrusion
  • Negative mood
  • Disassociation
  • Avoidance
  • Arousal

PTSD affects more than 8 million American adults each year. Generational PTSD may put people at risk for chronic physical, mental, and social problems.

Coping and Treatment

Treatment options for PTSD include medication and psychotherapy. Each person with the condition will respond differently to different treatments.

It's important to find a mental health provider who is experienced with PTSD and understands the various treatment modalities—especially if there are coexisting disorders like panic disorder, depression, substance use disorder, and suicidal ideation.

Prevalence

About 7% to 8% of people will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Anyone can develop PTSD at any age, but women are statistically most likely to develop the condition. In addition, some people might be more genetically susceptible to developing PTSD.

Antidepressants are the most commonly used medication to treat PTSD. These medications can help with symptoms like sadness, anxiety, anger, and numbness. However, if your symptoms include sleep disturbances and nightmares, your doctor may consider other medications to help address those needs.

Psychotherapy for PTSD focuses on identifying symptoms and triggers, as well as learning skills to manage them. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one therapy used for PTSD. CBT employs different strategies, including:

  • Exposure therapy: Gradually exposing people to the trauma they experienced in a safe way to help them learn how to face and control their fear
  • Cognitive restructuring: Helps people make sense of their traumatic memories

People who face stigma and discrimination are more vulnerable to PTSD. Therefore, treatment for trauma needs to be tailored to a person’s culture and beliefs. Providers need to be informed about how factors like race, immigration status, housing insecurity, poverty, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age influence ongoing trauma.

If you are struggling with symptoms of PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Intergenerational trauma may exist, but epigenetic science is still young. What is known is that some people are more biologically susceptible to PTSD, that PTSD is prevalent, and that epigenetic changes can be reversed. Together, these factors highlight why more research into intergenerational trauma is needed.

It's vital to identify and treat trauma—whether it's generational or not. While medication and psychotherapy are proven therapies for PTSD, individuals respond to treatments differently.

It's also essential that clinicians—especially those who work with marginalized communities—are culturally competent and able to consider how discrimination and inequality contribute to ongoing trauma.

If you have experienced trauma, look for mental health providers who are experienced with PTSD and who can modify treatment plans to fit your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are examples of intergenerational trauma? 

Researchers have studied several historical cases in which trauma was widespread in populations when people experienced traumatic events like famines, war, and genocide.

How is trauma passed down?

Intergenerational trauma is believed to pass from one generation to the next through genetic changes to a person’s DNA after they experience trauma. There is some evidence that these genetic markers are passed on to a person's offspring.

Is PTSD hereditary? 

Genetics may make some people more biologically susceptible to PTSD. In addition, epigenetics research points to a correlation between parental trauma and changes in an offspring’s DNA.

The field of epigenetics is still young. More research is needed and is important because epigenetic changes are reversible.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is Epigenetics?. Updated August 3, 2020.

  2. Heijmans B, Tobi E, Stein A et al. Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2008;105(44):17046-17049. doi:10.1073/pnas.0806560105

  3. American Psychological Association. Trauma and shock

  4. Yehuda R, Daskalakis N, Bierer L et al. Holocaust exposure induced intergenerational effects on FKBP5 methylation. Biol Psychiatry. 2015;80(5):372-380. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.08.005

  5. Deichmann U. The social construction of the social epigenome and the larger biological context. Epigenetics Chromatin. 2020;13(1). doi:10.1186/s13072-020-00360-w

  6. Lumey L, Stein A, Susser E. Prenatal famine and adult health. Annu Rev Public Health. 2011;32(1):237-262. doi:10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031210-101230

  7. Costa D, Yetter N, DeSomer H. Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War ex-POWs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018;115(44):11215-11220. doi:10.1073/pnas.1803630115

  8. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57. Rockville (MD): Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US); 2014:Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma.

  9. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. How common is PTSD in adults?.

  10. Youssef N, Lockwood L, Su S, Hao G, Rutten B. The effects of trauma, with or without PTSD, on the transgenerational DNA methylation alterations in human offsprings. Brain Sci. 2018;8(5):83. doi:10.3390/brainsci8050083

  11. National Institute of Mental Health. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Updated May 2019.

  12. Ford J, Grasso D, Elhai J, Courtois C. Social, cultural, and other diversity issues in the traumatic stress field. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. 2015:503-546. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-801288-8.00011-x

  13. Nievergelt C, Maihofer A, Klengel T et al. International meta-analysis of PTSD genome-wide association studies identifies sex- and ancestry-specific genetic risk loci. Nat Commun. 2019;10(1). doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12576-w